A Heart of Shadow

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story

Ben fell in his desk chair, his head in his shaky hands; they were only steadied by weak knees. NO! he begged, pushing a fist to his eyes. Not again! But nothing could stay this horrible plague of war. Ben succumbed to the smells of gunpowder and rotting flesh, the feel of earth-shaking cannons, the sounds of shots fired and men screaming, the taste of blood when his horse Dusty threw him...his eyes flew open, his fingers at his lips to ensure there was no residue. He looked up, only to see the ashen face of his fallen corporal. His skin went cold, his breath still.

“You didn’t save me,” his comrade wheezed.

“I tried,” Ben gasped, trembling.

A bloody hand came to Ben’s shoulder. He bolted, grabbing the wrist; the ghost melted into a startled Ana. Ben’s eyes darted down expecting a bloody paw; but he held Ana’s dainty fingers, his ring on one of them. He let go and paced, mumbling he was NWMP Sergeant Ben Davis, and the year was 1914.

Ana watched Ben. Since his return from fighting up north, she had seen his face look more haunted. He tried to hide it, but she’d have to be blind not to see the look of death in his eyes. Ben wearily sank to his chair, squeezing the bridge of his nose. Ana timidly approached. “What’s wrong? You know you can talk to me.” Nothing. “Ben, please? I know something is tearing you up inside.”
Ben’s eyes were sharp. She knew! He lashed out, “That’s just it, Ana! I can’t share it. I’m trying to forget all that!”

“But you won’t, so let me help you!” Ana shot back.

No, he wouldn’t forget; maybe they should talk. She was going to be his wife. He shook his head, shaking off the idea. He wasn’t going to let her feel any of this horror. He would handle it! His face grew stern. “No,” he said cold as ice. He flinched at the shock on Ana’s lovely face, but stood firm. “Just go.” He turned away.

Ana knew there was no talking to him. “Alright I’ll go.” She left and closed the door before the tears fell.

Ben didn’t move when the door opened; but when it shut, his heart fell. He wanted to take Ana in his arms to pour out his soul, but the door was a blockade stopping Ben in his tracks. He rested his head on it in defeat.
Ana spilled her sorrow, feeling lost. The only thing to do was talk to Ida. Ana dragged herself to her friend’s home, and walked in. Ida smiled to see Ana, but it faded when she saw the shiny tears. Ida wrapped her in a warm hug. “It’s alright,” she said, and sat Ana down with some tea. That was better, but Ana still cried. “Why is it like this? My greatest wish: Ben home and uninjured, has come true; and nothing’s right!”

“Ana, maybe he’s not uninjured.” Ana looked up. “His mind and heart are scarred. Think about all he’s seen, been through. That was his life: worrying over his men, watching them die, expecting danger at every corner. Now he’s home. He’s trying to adjust to life where he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder, and put away all those awful sights and sounds. I even think he has something I’ve heard of called shell shock. The brain gets rattled, and causes panic. He’s probably terrified.”

Ana was stunned. Yes! The pieces came together as she spoke her thoughts. “All that time, I prayed he’d come home. Then I felt extra blessed when he wasn’t hurt. I knew he would need time, but I never thought it could go so deep. What he must be feeling! Oh, I feel terrible! He’s not fine, Ida! He’s different. We’re different. We’re on separate paths.”

“No,” Ida countered. “Your path has changed. Rockier to be sure, longer. But your destination is the same. Just find a way to walk that path together, and show him your love despite this rock in the way.”

“You mean boulder,” Ana muttered, and sighed. “But how?”

Ida took her hand. “You’ll know. Listen to your heart; you’ll think of something.” Seeing Ana needed to think, Ida went to wash dishes. Ana’s mind wandered over first meeting Ben on Main Street, their first kiss after the church social, his proposal on a moonlit picnic with candles scattered everywhere...Ana’s eyes brightened, and a smile finally came. She had an idea.

The next day, Ben was still upset. He hadn’t seen Ana since she’d flown out like her skirt was on fire, and now that dust had settled, Ben knew he’d overreacted. He’d just bowed his head to pray when he heard a knock. There she was! Ben’s heart raced. He wanted to patch things up, but didn’t know how. No time like the present! “Ana, I...” Ben sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted.

“Let me help you, Ben. Won’t you allow me that?”

Ben sighed again. “I told you, I can’t share that. Up there...it was worse than you can imagine. I’d never subject you to that. I don’t know if...”

“Ben,” Ana interrupted gently. Her tone took him off guard; he thought she’d argue. “Take my hand?”

Ben’s eyes widened. He’d said that when he proposed. This was the last thing he’d expected. “Ana this isn’t...”

“Please...take my hand?” she asked.

Ben’s heart softened. The love in her eyes convinced him. He smiled for the first time in days, and took her hand. He wondered how far they were going, but followed Ana as she grabbed a lantern, and led him out of the jail.

As they walked, Ben saw they were headed for their land. Maybe she had a new idea for the house. They’d have to be quick with daylight fading. When they were close, Ben saw lights. He looked at Ana, who only smiled. Upon arrival, Ben’s heart melted. Almost a half-acre was covered in candles, similar to what he’d done at his proposal. “What’s this?” he asked with emotion.

Ana set the lantern down, taking his hands. “Ben, I love you, and I can’t wait to spend our lives together. That means for better and worse. So whatever you’re struggling with, I’m here; I’ll stand by you. I hope you’ll have the courage to let me share the burden; your pain is my pain.”

That’s when tears fell! Oh how he loved her! Show her, his head told him. “Ana!” he cried, and pulled her close, pressing his mouth to hers. She was the water; he was a man who had crossed a desert. Why had he denied himself this when it replenished him so? He kissed her cheek, her forehead, her hair. Then he held her face to just gaze at her. “How did I ever live without you?” He kissed her once more, and put his arms around her to hold her close.

Tell her, Ben’s mind spoke again. He pulled back, and sat with Ana on a log. With his elbows on his knees, he took a deep breath. “It started about a week after I got home. It wasn’t bad at first; I’d see a blast when I closed my eyes, or look behind me when things got quiet. But it’s worse now. I see everything like it happened yesterday. I smell gunpowder, and taste blood in my mouth. But a few days ago, something truly terrifying happened: I saw him.” He paused, gathering courage to go on. “I saw my corporal who got killed. I watched him die, Ana. One of those gang members took aim and fired with no thought at all. I tried to push him out of the way, but I...I wasn’t fast enough!” He faced her. “I saw him again in my office right before you came in yesterday, as plain as I see you now. I’m haunted, Ana,” he confessed. “I can’t protect you if this keeps up. I can’t take care of you.” Ben took a cleansing breath. “That’s what happened to me, why I pushed you away.”

“Oh Ben!” Ana hugged him, hoping she could restore his courageous spirit. Please God, Ana prayed silently. Give me the words. Instantly, they came. She eased back, and looked in Ben’s eyes. “Let me make one thing clear: I don’t need a husband to take care of me; I need an equal partner. We’ll take care of each other.”

Ben sighed with relief and more tears. He touched her face, and looked around. An idea came. His hands took hers, one knee hit the earth. “Ana Martin, you give me strength to do my duty, and courage to carry on. I love you more than life. Will you still marry me?”

Now Ana cried. “There’s no greater honor, Ben Davis.” She knelt and kissed him, feeling their spirits connect...and feeling the courage they’d need on this path.